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DARPA Wants To Head for the Stars

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The two flights of its Falcon HTV-2 hypersonic test vehicle may not have turned out as planned, but that isn't stopping the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) from working on plans to travel to another star.

Writing in the New York Times today, Dennis Overbye recaps DARPA's 100-year Starship Study through which DARPA will award $500,000 in seed money to an organization to study what it would take "organizationally, technically, sociologically and ethically" to send people on an interstellar voyage. NASA's Ames Research Center is partnering with DARPA on the project. David Neyland, director of technical technology at DARPA, is quoted as saying that the agency is not trying to design an interstellar craft itself, but instead wants to find an organization that will carry the concept forward for the next 100 years with private sector, not government, funding.

The idea is that new technologies would be developed over the decades as the effort unfolds that will be useful to the Department of Defense and NASA. DARPA's announcement of the project last year said that the study "looks to develop the business case for an enduring organization designed to incentivize breakthroughs enabling future spaceflight."

A three-day symposium will be held in Orlando, FL September 30-October 2 to discuss the responses to DARPA's request for information. The meeting is free and open to the public.

STS-135 Crew on Colbert Report Tonight

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

The crew of the final space shuttle mission, STS-135, will be on the Comedy Central show The Colbert Report tonight at 11:30 pm EDT.

The show's star, Stephen Colbert, is a fan of the space program, but mostly a comedian. He mounted a write-in campaign to have the last U.S. space station module named after him when NASA had a naming contest. He won, but NASA overrode the vote and named it Tranquillity. Instead, they named a piece of exercise equipment on the space station after him, the Combined Operational Load-Bearing External Resistance Treadmill (COLBERT).

Senators Complain to Obama About Slow Progress on SLS

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

Five Senators from Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana wrote a letter to President Obama on Monday complaining about how NASA is using its FY2011 funding for the Space Launch System (SLS).

The Hunstville Times published the letter, which takes issue with how NASA plans to spend FY2011 funds and for not providing a report required by section 309 of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. NASA submitted a preliminary version of that "section 309" report in January, but has repeatedly delayed sending the final version. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden told a House committee in July that it may be fall before NASA is ready to officially announce its plans for the new heavy lift launch vehicle required by Congress.

The SLS is meant to be paired with a crew capsule -- the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) -- to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit and to serve as a backup to commercial crew systems that NASA is helping the private sector develop to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville is expected to be the lead NASA center working on the SLS.

The letter complains that NASA's FY2011 operating plan shows the agency moving forward with MPCV and commercial crew, but not expeditiously working on the SLS. Saying that the "misallocation" of SLS funds suggests that the Administration "has no intention of properly using appropriated funds," the Senators "insist" that the section 309 report be submitted immediately.

Cabinet Secretaries Warn on Spending Cuts

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta yesterday in warning about the impact on national security if the "congressional supercommittee" does not reach agreement.

Panetta, a former congressman and former Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), as well as former Director of Central Intelligence, made his views clear two weeks ago. He and Clinton, a former Senator, are concerned about the poison pill that was included in the debt limit/deficit reduction deal reached earlier this month. The two spoke at National Defense University yesterday.

The deal implemented approximately $1 trillion in spending cuts over the next 10 years immediately and directed that a 12-person congressional panel -- three Democratic Senators and three Democratic Representatives plus three Republican Senators and three Republican Representatives -- be established to find another $1.2-1.5 trillion in spending cuts by Thanksgiving. The panel has been dubbed a "supercommittee" in the media. Congress is then supposed to have an up or down vote (i.e., no amendments would be permitted) on the supercommittee's recommendations by Christmas.

As an incentive for the group to reach agreement, draconian cuts to discretionary spending would automatically take effect if it does not or if Congress fails to pass whatever it recommends. DOD already is shouldering $350 billion of the initial $1 trillion in cuts. It would have to absorb another $500 billion over 10 years if the supercommittee process fails. The remaining cuts would come from other departments and agencies categorized as discretionary spending, including the State Department -- and NASA and NOAA.

The two cabinet secretaries emphasized the need for the supercommittee to look at all government spending, including entitlement programs, as well as tax increases, rather than cutting only discretionary spending.

The 12 members of the supercommittee have been named. Political observers in Washington are split on whether those 12 individuals are likely to be able to reach a compromise or not, but many express concern about the tight time schedule they must meet. Legislative committees are due to give their recommendations to the supercommittee by October 14. The supercommittee then must make its recommendations by November 23, with voting completed in the House and Senate by December 23.

NASA's Doug Cooke to Retire

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA announced today that Doug Cooke, Associate Administrator for the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, will retire on October 3.

Cooke had said several months ago that he would retire after his organization merged with the Space Operations Mission Directorate (SOMD). NASA announced the merger of those two headquarters components last week.

Cooke's career at NASA spans 38 years. He worked on the space shuttle, International Space Station, and exploration programs. Bill Gerstenmaier, who headed SOMD, will be in charge of the new combined Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate.

NASA To Discuss Space Weather

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA will hold a press briefing on Thursday concerning new information about space weather.

The briefing is scheduled for 2:00 pm EDT at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. The information is from the agency's Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory -- STEREO -- and other NASA probes.

Space weather is a term used to describe the effects on Earth of events on the Sun like solar flares. NASA's Heliophysics Division in the Science Mission Directorate is in charge of studying these solar-terrestrial interactions. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA's) National Weather Service issues space weather predictions and warnings as it does for terrestrial weather since storms on the Sun can have dramatic effects on everything from satellites orbiting the Earth (including GPS and communications satellites on which people are increasingly dependent) to terrestrial electric power grids.

Speakers from NASA, NOAA, the Southwest Research Institute and Boston College will participate in the press conference. It will be broadcast on NASA TV.

NASA Strives to Correct Its Untold and Misunderstood Stories

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 16-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

At last week's NASA Future Forum, better and clearer communication about agency activities and policies was the order of the day.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA's) scientific and technological research, and its contributions not only to its missions, but to the U.S. economy and the lives of its citizens, was the focus of the NASA Future Forum, held at the University of Maryland, College Park. Participants, audience members and online viewers interacting via Twitter, engaged in discussions about how best to involve companies and universities in NASA-funded research, how to take successful technologies and integrate them into the market as spinoffs, and how to measure the value of investments, among other things.

Yet one theme that underlined many of the day's discussions centered on the agency's efforts to communicate with the public about these activities. Officials also attempted to "correct" what perceptions may have been created from the policy battles being waged just a few miles away in the nation's capital.

One of these latter points was taken up by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. When he asked the audience who believed it would take years to know when a U.S. vehicle would be arriving at the International Space Station (ISS), the majority shot up their hands. Bolden said that, in fact, it would take less time for American vehicles to fly to the ISS than it took for the post-Columbia disaster recovery (about two-and-a-half years). In response to the audience's reaction, he explained that he and NASA had failed to send out the right message and that it could be as early as next year for a U.S. company to be delivering cargo (but not crew) to the ISS.

Dr. Laurie Leshin, Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration at NASA Headquarters, alluded to another policy battle when she began her remarks by stating that "reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated." Leshin spoke with enthusiasm about what she described as "the next phase of human exploration" and the scientific endeavors that would take the human spaceflight program to new destinations. Once again she aimed to correct an incorrect message; "there is a great program," she declared, speaking to those who, according to her, are saying that the agency no longer has a space exploration program. Leshin recently announced that she would be leaving NASA for the Rennselaer Institute of Technology.

Policy debates aside, perhaps the biggest issue was the question of whether the day's overall message - NASA's direct and indirect contribution to society through science and technology - was reaching its audience at all. Bolden said that at NASA, "we take science fiction and turn it into science fact." Still, his lamentation that so few young people were in attendance begged the question of just how many of them are aware or interested in this side of the agency's activities.

Dr. Raymond Sedwick, an engineering professor at the University of Maryland, posed this very question. During the NASA panel, which included Dr. Robert Braun, NASA Chief Technologist, and Dr. Waleed Abdalati, NASA's Chief Scientist, Sedwick asked whether they were not really "preaching to the choir." Sedwick argued that the audience was made up of people who were already informed and excited about NASA's activities and that the agency's problem was one of public relations. He challenged NASA to be more creative in how it delivers its messages, arguing that it should seek to excite not just children and students, but the adult public as well.

Braun, who in his comments had argued that NASA was "improving life everyday here on Earth," admitted that before being part of the agency, he did not know about NASA activities in this area. As a member of the public, the message just never reached him. Braun said though that in his current role he had assumed the task of communicating more about spinoffs and that his office, which produces an annual spinoff report, would emphasize societal benefits in the near future, because "NASA has a great story to tell."

Representative Donna Edwards (D-MD), who offered some brief remarks later in the morning, agreed: "We have to tell those stories." Edwards argued that the space community's challenge is making the result of NASA's investments in science and technology better known to the general public.

"A nation is only as strong as its investments in technology in the future," said Edwards, adding that "the core" of those activities was the work done at NASA. If these discussions are any indication, though, it seems that NASA's science and technology investments need to be paired with a better strategy for communicating the policies that guide them and what they mean for the community outside of the agency's walls.

NASA Names New Safety Chief

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA named astronaut Terrence "Terry" Wilcutt as its new chief of safety and mission assurance today.

Wilcutt will replace former astronaut Bryan O'Connor who announced his retirement weeks ago. Wilcutt assumes the post on August 31. He flew on four shuttle missions, two as pilot and two as commander. Most recently he has been the manager of safety and mission assurance for the space shuttle program at Johnson Space Center.

UPDATE: Events of Interest: Week of August 15-19, 2011

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: NASA's space weather press conference on Thursday has been added.


Hope all of you are enjoying your summer vacations. Here are the events we know of that are happening this week related to space policy.

Monday-Wednesday, August 15-17

Monday-Thursday, August 15-18

Thursday, August 18

November 30 Targeted For Next Falcon 9 Test

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

SpaceX and NASA are targeting November 30, 2011 for the next test of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and the Dragon capsule.

SpaceX issued a press release today restating what a NASA official said earlier that the two have agreed in principle to merging the next two tests into one, but a final decision is pending. SpaceX originally planned three test flights as part of NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. The first, in December 2010, was so successful that the company asked permission to combine the other two. NASA has been evaluating the risks associated with combining the two tests for many months. SpaceX explained today that the remaining issues are related to additional payloads the company wants to deploy from the Falcon 9 after Dragon is released for its trip to the International Space Station (ISS). "NASA will grant formal approval for the combined COTS missions pending resolution of any potential risks associated with these secondary payloads," the company said. The combined test includes berthing the Dragon capsule at the ISS.

NASA is anxious for SpaceX and its COTS competitor Orbital Sciences Corp. to demonstrate their systems for taking cargo to the ISS. With the space shuttle sent into retirement, and NASA's agreement with Russia to launch cargo on Russia's Progress spacecraft coming to an end, the only way for NASA to get cargo to the ISS will be aboard Europe's ATV and Japan's HTV spacecraft if the COTS systems do not materialize. NASA stocked the ISS with a year's worth of supplies with the final shuttle flights to guard against any delays in the COTS program. COTS is a development program; the services the companies would provide to NASA are called Commercial Resupply Services (CRS). NASA hopes that CRS flights will begin early in 2012. These are only for cargo, not crew, although SpaceX plans to use the Dragon capsule to take astronauts to and from the ISS and other low Earth orbit destinations in the future.

Orbital planned only one test flight, in 2011, but it has not yet occurred and now two tests are expected. Its efforts are being slowed by construction for the launch site at Wallops Island, VA and suffered another setback in June when a Taurus II engine caught fire while being tested at NASA's Stennis Space Center. Aviation Week reported on Friday that the fire was caused by a kerosene leak from the fuel manifold on the outside of the engine. Taurus II will use Aerojet's AJ-26 engines, which are refurbished Russian NK-33 engines originally designed for the Soviet Union's unsuccessful 1960s-era N-1 Moon rocket. The kerosene leak was from a 40-year-old part of the engine. Orbital plans two test launches of the Taurus II as part of the COTS program. Its current schedule calls for the first test launch in very late 2011, the second test in the middle of the first quarter of 2012, and two CRS missions later in 2012.

The companies and NASA reassured Congress at a May 26 hearing that the systems would be ready soon.

Events of Interest

Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »


 

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